Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending.
You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds?
Lay first the foundation of humility”
~ Saint Augustine.
We exist as a force capable of doing difficult tasks which others cannot. When the going gets tough, we often trust the people around us, suspending what we know about the world and believing instead that our people and commanders are infallible. This only works for a short while. We can all point to instances, through our own experiences or that of others, where sheer confidence, pride and possibly a touch of stubbornness have saved the day. But our people are not infallible, our commanders do not have all the answers, and we, as humans (especially as individuals), often get it wrong.
This article explores the importance of humility, why we do not always get it right, why we need to do better, and how we may do this. My experience of the army to date shows that the optimal answer is always there, just usually not held by a single person. Aggregating multiple possible solutions is our greatest strength as a fighting force. As leaders or followers, we must understand that our people can teach us far more than we can teach them.
What is humility, and why do we need it?
A simple definition from the Cambridge online dictionary:
“The feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others”.
There have been occasions where I wanted the person making decisions to have particular importance and be better than others. Many soldiers fit this description. So why argue the need for humility?
In nearly two decades of service, I have been commanded by many people but led by relatively few. Those that led were all exceptionally competent; they accepted their strengths but understood their weaknesses. When they made mistakes, the team often fixed them without being told they were broken. We knew they would do the same for us. Other articles delve into explorations of Leadership, however, I will permit myself one observation if you will indulge me: I have never met someone I would consider the epitome of leadership who did not possess an abundance of humility. Humble people are comfortable in their skin and make others comfortable too, no matter what situation they find themselves in.
The army has many people who do not indicate that they have negative qualities or entertain the possibility that they could be wrong. We call them arrogant, egotistical, or worse. However, they get things done. They move fast, not always getting things exactly right but not consistently entirely wrong. These people get the 80(ish) per cent solution enacted immediately. We follow them, and we trust that they have the answers. The more uncertain or scary the situation, the more we are attracted to someone who gives us a feeling that everything is under control. Having said that, the line between confidence and arrogance is wafer thin, and it is too easy for a confident person to be emboldened by success and become too sure of themselves. Their aggressively executed plans can go from good enough to not quite good enough to outright wrong.
The more someone is wedded to the idea of their infallibility, the harder it is for someone else to speak truth to power and help them understand where they can do better. Eventually, the only way to protect their self-esteem is to take fewer risks and make fewer decisions whilst projecting the same display of confidence.
Balancing humility with confidence in challenging situations
As a recruit in 2003, I was told by one of our section commanders: “If you’re good at your job and you shout the loudest, then you will promote quickly”. There was some truth in this. I was not confident, yet I picked up my role reasonably well. I learned early on that I could perform above the average, and my confidence grew. That section commander perhaps should have said there would come a point where things were not so simple, the problems I’d need to deal with would go beyond my capability, and that shouting loud does not make me flawless. Shouting loud got me to Corporal; listening hard was what I needed to get beyond that.
A humble leader allows a subordinate to highlight a problem or propose an opinion, perhaps for the first time as a young soldier, discovering they are not just a warm body–but instead a valued part of the team. A potentially decisive outcome from simply being open to other perspectives.
The self-awareness that comes with humility allows us to see where things may go wrong, free from hubris. Humble leaders know their individual and collective weaknesses, and they can plan against these, having the courage to ask questions where needed. Their subordinates are happier, too.
The army has been promoting people for being loud, confident, and decisive. And these are necessary for certain aspects of our line of work. If this behaviour gets us promoted initially, does it become an ingrained part of us? In short, we cannot solve everything ourselves and need others to help us. Eventually, things become more complicated, our challenges have fewer defined answers, and our relationships become more critical. We deal with complexity and must be honest with ourselves, and our people, about what we do or do not know. If we have the humility to do this, we can fill gaps and achieve team goals. Ultimately, when things get tough, we need help. Humble people know when and where they need help and can ask for it. To be bold: the higher we get, the more humility we require to succeed professionally.
How do we build our humility? We must be clear this is not the same as being modest. Modesty makes us easier to work with and might buy us the space to realise what our people can do. But if we are too subtle, how might people see enough competence to trust us? We can still be confident about our strengths whilst, importantly, acknowledging our weaknesses. Arrogance is neither warranted or needed. We can all learn something from everyone. Plenty of decent commanders get by whilst assuming this is not the case, yet I’d struggle to point to a good leader who does not learn as much from those beneath them as those above.
It’s rare to see a genuinely humble person who has not failed at something. Learning that we are fallible, and why, allows us to have honest conversations with each other about the things we are not good at. A little effort in improving a weakness takes us far further than significant efforts enhancing a strength. If we push ourselves enough, we all fail at something. Being humble enough to learn from it, ask for help, and improving makes us better leaders and followers.
What can we take from an article that most of us intuitively already know? We need to accept that most of us are just ordinary soldiers. This means we are all fallible; the more challenging things get, the less we can do alone. We must understand our abilities to know where we need help, and continued development via feedback, and have the courage and humility to ask for it. Humility makes us better leaders and followers, allowing us–a group of ordinary people with a common purpose–to do extraordinary things.
Cover photo by Padriñán via Pexels